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Business News/ Opinion / Budget 2018: What equities and bond markets tell us

Budget 2018: What equities and bond markets tell us

While the equity markets seem to have comprehensively disapproved of Jaitley's last full budget, the response of bond prices indicate the likelihood of hardening interest rates in the future

The Sensex started floating downwards soon after Jaitley began reading his budget speech, disheartened by the heavy overload of social sector announcements. Photo: AFPPremium
The Sensex started floating downwards soon after Jaitley began reading his budget speech, disheartened by the heavy overload of social sector announcements. Photo: AFP

Two needles moved decisively after Union finance minister Arun Jaitley announced his budget for 2018-19. Both movements provide some clues on how to read the budget.

The first needle—indicating stock market health—oscillated wildly during Jaitley’s speech and continued to fluctuate thereafter. The BSE Sensex started floating downwards soon after the finance minister began reading his budget speech on Thursday morning, disheartened by the heavy overload of social sector announcements. It then dropped further on news of a new long-term capital gains (LTCG) tax, recovered slightly and ended the day marginally below opening levels. But, on Friday, it capsized as the full weight of the budget sank in. By the time markets closed on Friday, Sensex had lost almost 900 points, or close to 2.5%, over its Wednesday closing.

This sell-off can be read in multiple ways. The charitable justification is that the stock market was over-valued and investors needed an excuse to make a correction. The moderate explanation is that investors are unhappy with the budget maths, the expenditure programme, the lack of visible funding sources, lack of clarity over the generous spending programme and the red light flashing over the fiscal deficit levels. The extreme view is that the sell-off revealed a marked distaste for the new LTCG levy, an inexplicable 42% jump in the securities transaction tax collection next year (raising fears that the tax rate might be increased in the interim) and the inclusion of equity mutual funds in the dividend distribution tax net.

In short, whatever the reason, it does seem that the equity markets have comprehensively disapproved of Jaitley’s last full budget. It’s perhaps also an expression of the market’s scepticism with the numbers.

For example, there is no accounting for many of the grandiose spending schemes. Analysts are clueless how either the minimum support price programme for farmers, or the ambitious health coverage scheme, will be financed. There are doubts even about some of the capital expenditure schemes. Many of these are likely to be launched in conjunction with states, giving rise to a fresh wave of cynicism about their viability.

In most cases, the policy architecture is yet to be worked out. Making announcements before finalizing the policy contours is a curious practice, somewhat like a nervous sentry shooting first and asking questions later.

Some disingenuous measures on the personal tax front might have also left a bad taste. For example, a standard deduction of Rs40,000 that was announced as relief for the salaried taxpayers was negated the next moment by an increase in cess from 3% to 4%. In fact, the budget relies heavily on cess collection, a revenue source which the centre does not have to share with states, betraying signs of nervousness not only about revenue collection but also about the impending political battles that lie ahead.

The second needle—bond markets—is providing a far more layered story of what lies ahead. Reacting to budget arithmetic, especially the government’s spending and planned borrowing programme for 2018-19, 10-year government bond prices fell and yields rose, indicating the likelihood of hardening interest rates in the future. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announces its sixth bi-monthly monetary policy on 7 February and it will be interesting to see what emerges.

One thing is certain though: the prospect of a rate cut now seems to have receded. On the contrary, RBI is likely to adopt a tightening stance, with oil prices rising globally, bank credit picking up, money supply growth clocking 10.7%, the government’s borrowing programme looking unrealistic and poised to breach the budgeted target (just like the current year) and general uncertainty over how the government’s proposals will impact the price line.

For example, there are questions over whether the 50% increase in kharif minimum support price will impact the consumer price line or whether it has already been priced in.

Pressure on yields will emerge from another front if Jaitley’s plans for the corporate bond markets take off. Jaitley’s speech stated that securities markets regulator Securities and Exchanges Board of India will soon come out with rules that will compel large corporates to source 25% of borrowings from the corporate bond market. In addition, he said many sectoral regulators will be asked to relax investment rules in their respective industries; for example, the insurance regulator might henceforth allow insurance companies to invest in A-rated bonds when the current rules draw the line at AA-rating. To facilitate growth of the corporate bond market, Jaitley also promised to reform the stamp duty regime in consultation with states.

Even if we leave aside the oddity of telling corporates where to borrow, the development has the potential to affect government bond yields and, subsequently, interest rates. While the government has kept its FY19 borrowing programme largely the same as FY18 (Rs6.06 trillion against Rs6.05 trillion), any additional borrowings over the budget target is likely to have consequences for interest rates.

And as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party gets into election mode—as was evident from the budget speech’s tone and tenor—and spending gets subjected to realpolitik, the likelihood of a bloated borrowing programme and deviation from the fiscal deficit glide path cannot be ruled out. It’s election season after all.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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Published: 04 Feb 2018, 11:20 PM IST
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